The image below shows a snip of our chicken run and coop, goat house and pasture, and our garden. The garden is bookended by the goat and chicken shelters and the goat pasture is on the uphill side of th garden. This was intentionally planned so that I could easily throw weeds, unused plant parts, and extras from the garden over the fence to our confined livestock as a supplemental feed source. It also makes moving manure to the garden easier.
Now, in our third year of goat keeping, and the second year that our goats have been confined to this pasture, I realized that I could also use this layout to try to prevent parasite problems in my goat-herd while giving my chickens access to more grazing area.
Goats have parasites. This is just one of those things you need to be aware of if you want to raise goats. Eliminating parasites in goats is impossible. The goal, instead, is to keep parasite populations under control and keep goats healthy so they don’t succumb to the symptoms of parasite overload.
So far we haven’t had to worm yet. From what I’ve read, this is usually true for new goat keepers. Parasites take a few years to build up in a pasture. New owners, with new goats, on new pasture get a bit of a grace period. But, there have been a few times in recent months when I contemplated worming. We averted the necessity by adding some alfalfa pellets to our goat feed, putting raw vinegar in goat water, and making free choice minerals* available. I know these small steps won’t always be enough and I’ve been looking for other ways to boost goat health and control parasites.
Several homesteading, permaculture, and non-traditional farming blogs have suggested that chickens can help reduce parasite load in the pasture. I couldn’t find a lot of scholarly articles on the subject. However, this idea makes logical sense. Many of the parasites make eggs in the goat intestines and are then pooped out on pasture. The eggs hatch then those little critters grow, crawl up blades of grass, and wait to be eaten again by the goats. If you can interrupt this cycle, by say… having a chicken eat the goat parasites then theoretically you can cut down the parasite pressure on your goats.
Since most goat parasites are adapted specifically to live inside goats, chickens with very different digestive tracts aren’t suitable hosts for those parasites. That means for chickens, goat parasites don’t pose a health risk and can be considered as another protein source. That part seems pretty well-supported by scholarly and experience-based data available online. But the part I am not sure about is whether chickens will actually eat goat parasites.
From my own observations, chickens are pretty picky eaters if given their druthers. For example, they love the marmorated stink bugs, but avoid the harlequin bugs even though they are both in the stink bug family. My initial thought was this choice was color related. However, they love the bright orange wire worms and avoid the gray pill bugs. They also have preferences on what kind of caterpillars they will eat. The tomato horn worm makes the list while the swallow-tail caterpillar is non-preferred.
Since I’ve never been able to find a parasite on a blade of grass, it will be hard for me to figure out if chickens like them or not. I also have other goat management techniques in play to cut the parasite load, like growing birdsfoot trefoil in the pasture, so it will be difficult to figure out which methods have the greatest efficacy. But, I can already see other great benefits for pasture-sharing.
Generally, people employing chickens for parasite prevention in pastures tend to use rotational grazing methods. The goats go in, eat, poop, move on, and the chickens follow later. In our situation with a single pasture lot, we are letting them in the space concurrently.
A big concern when mixing species is to make sure you have suitable shelter, food, predator protection, and containment fencing for all species in a pasture. In our case, we used the same deer fencing – essentially 6 foot tall coated chicken wire – in all three areas. We ran an additional electric wire around our goat pasture to discourage goats from pushing on the fences and stretching and tearing them. Except neighbor dogs, we don’t have much daytime predator pressure for adult chickens or goats of any age. And since our layout allows our goats and chickens to be put up over night in their current shelters, we had ready-made solutions for shelter and nighttime predator protection.
On the provisioning front, I had to make sure the goats could not access the chicken food. We got snowed in two years ago and I mixed chicken feed with goat rations for two days to keep everyone fed. The goats went crazy for the chicken feed which made me realize it had to be bad for them. Their poop also immediately began to clump, which is often a sign of a dietary issue. After that, I researched and learned that giving goats chicken feed can result in potentially lethal goat bloat.
To keep goats out of the chicken area, I made our opening from the chicken run into the pasture chicken-sized. I also ran the electric wire just over the top of the opening so that if a grown goat tried to squeeze through, they’d get shocked. The feed is also located inside the chicken coop and can only be accessed by going through another chicken-sized door that is out of sight of the pasture opening. The openings are large enough that baby goats could likely fit through. But the chances of kids getting that far away from Mama is pretty slim. I am pretty confident that these measures will be enough to secure the chicken food.
The other concern was that I needed to be able to keep the chickens out of the pasture when I was seeding it. Initially I was planning to buy materials to make a formal door with a frame. And then I realized I was overthinking it. Instead, I just cut a hole in the fence and got a slightly larger scrap of fencing to use to cover the hole when necessary. I also cut a few lengths of bendable wire to use to twist tie the fence patch in place. Since I had these supplies already, my costs were zero!
With solutions in place to prevent problems, I let the chickens out. It only took them a few minutes to find the hole in the fence and start scratching in the pasture. Within a couple of hours, they had made it over to the goat shelter and found my compost pile. They immediately started scratching the top of the pile and all around the base where stuff had fallen out. The areas they worked started to look like finished compost in just a couple of days. I raked it out and gave them access to the stuff below. The next six inches of compost is now almost ready too. I knew chickens were useful to turn a compost pile and have often used them as compost spreaders/integrators. Still, I hadn’t realized how quickly they’d speed up the timeline on decomposition. It was pretty amazing.
Chickens like variety in their activities. So after working the compost pile for a while, they went back out to pasture. There, they targeted the areas where some lingering erosion issues had resulted in collections of undecomposed goat manure that had rolled from further uphill. The chickens started scratching apart the little goat poop pills and working them into the soil. Within a couple of days, standing poop piles had been dispersed.
If compost pile turning and poop dispersing aren’t enough incentive, how about all around happier animals? The chickens and goats absolutely love to be together. They even seem to have a calming effect on each other. The goats head-but each other less when chickens are around and my low pecking order hens are showing fewer signs of being pecked on. I frequently find the chickens snuggled up with, and even on, the goats in the goat shelter for afternoon naps. I also see the chickens picking stuff off the goats coats so I suspect they are helping to control biting insects and keep goats clean.
In fact, the only time the chickens aren’t hanging with the goats is when other chickens are laying. My chickens are so well nest-trained, that it hadn’t even occurred to me that they might lay in the pasture instead of the coop. I found a few eggs in the goat shelter the first few days. But, after the novelty wore off, the entire flock of chickens now returns to hang out in the chicken run when someone needs to lay. The non-layers scratch around the run until the layer is done, then they all head back to pasture.
Now, interspecies romance isn’t exactly a new thing on the reLuxe Ranch. But, last week, I witnessed the sweetest start to a new friendship between our youngest doe, Giselle, and our new rooster, Rasputin (named for the monk/mystic who may have led to the Romanov downfall – this is what happens when I let Matt name chickens). Rasputin stood perfectly still while Giselle gently smelled most of his neck and breast area. He barely blinked and it was clear that she was being extremely cautious not to startle him.
I recently added Rasputin to our flock in preparation for 20 new hens I’ve got in the brooder. Unfortunately, Roscoe (our main rooster) isn’t willing to share our existing hens and frequently chases Rasputin around to show him who is boss. Understandably, after being bullied by a 14 pound monster rooster, Rasputin tends to be flighty and nervous. Giselle, the youngest and smallest of our goats, also gets bullied by the big girls.
I felt like a witness to grace in watching those two underdogs get to know each other and relate. That sweet introduction went on for over five minutes. I really couldn’t believe the tenderness and comprehension going on between the pair. I finally decided to go get my camera, but by the time I returned, the two had wandered off to do other things. I now often find Rasputin accompanying Giselle in pasture.
So, there are a few irritations related to pasture sharing. I do have to clean up some chicken poop from the goat barn. And I had to wipe some off a goat’s coat once. Also, having roosters crow a few feet from me while milking goats is a bit jarring. But, perhaps it was that moment between Giselle and Rasputin, or just my idyllic image of farm animal life, but it feels absolutely right to have our chickens and goats sharing a pasture.
*Note on minerals: Many goat keepers give free choice minerals year round. Our formulated goat feed contains mineral supplements and our clay soil (that goats eat) is loaded with minerals including high levels of Zinc and adequate Selenium. Since the packaged minerals available around here contain loads of molasses and artificial flavors and fragrances, geared at making goats eat minerals like candy, I only offer them free choice for short periods when I suspect goats need a boost. I’ll also use specific supplements (e.g. powder human-grade vitamins with a mortar and pestle and add to feed in goat appropriate doses) if I suspect particular deficiencies.
Making sure your goats have access to the minerals they need for optimal health is critical. But, since every goat owner keeps goats in different ways (e.g. free range or not, how much pasture, types of supplemental feed, well-water versus city water, type of soil in pasture, etc.) how and when to dispense minerals is something each goat owner needs to decide based on their own set if unique circumstances.